In Turkey's cross-border operation into Syria, a dual purpose

Turkish officials vow to 'cleanse' the so-called Islamic State from its northern Syrian border stronghold, but analysts say more is at stake.

Associated Press
Turkish Army tanks and Turkey-backed Syrian opposition forces move toward the Syrian border as pictured from Karkamis, Turkey, Aug. 24.

Turkish tanks and special forces units crossed into Syria at dawn today to capture one of the last border towns held by the so-called Islamic State, and to prevent further territorial advances by US-backed Kurdish forces.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said the trigger for “Operation Euphrates Shield” was a string of recent IS bombings – culminating in a weekend suicide attack on a wedding that left 54 dead in southern Turkey.

“We reached the final point where we said, ‘We have to end these attacks,’” said Mr. Erdoğan, as he announced Turkey’s first concerted ground incursion into Syria, which was backed by US air support and led some 1,500 rebels of the Free Syria Army (FSA) to seize the town of Jarablus.

By late afternoon, state-run Anadolu Agency reported that Jarablus was taken without a fight or a single Turkish casualty, and IS appeared to have quietly withdrawn from its last border crossing with Turkey.

But while Turkish officials vow to “cleanse” IS from the area, analysts see a broader set of aims.

In a stroke, Turkey is deploying hard power to achieve two mutually reinforcing goals: push IS back from its border, and at the same time prevent Kurdish-led fighters of the US-backed Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) from joining up in a contiguous belt of territory along much of Turkey’s southern border with Syria.

Some 300 US Special Forces troops advise the SDF, which have proven the most capable anti-IS fighters on the battlefield. The SDF includes the Kurdish YPG force, which was instrumental during weeks of fighting that defeated IS at Manbij, west of the Euphrates River, earlier this month.

But Turkey considers all Kurdish forces terrorists and a long-term threat, certain that a Kurdish-controlled strip of northern Syria will provide safe haven for Turkish Kurds of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), with which it is directly fighting a war.

The operation was praised today by Vice President Joe Biden, who said during a visit to Turkey that the Kurdish forces would lose American support if they did not withdraw to east of the Euphrates River, in keeping with a previous US-Turkey agreement.

“It shows that in the Syrian civil war, everyone is preparing for the ‘day after IS,’ ” says Soner Çağaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“Right now [for Turkey] fighting IS and blocking Kurdish gains are co-priorities and they serve each other,” says Mr. Çağaptay. “As Turkey takes an area from IS, it’s also blocking Kurdish advances. And as it aims to block Kurdish advances, it has to take territory from IS.”

Listing objectives, a Turkish official who asked to remain anonymous said that beside securing the border and fighting IS, Turkey aimed to “create a terror-free zone in northern Syria” that would “permanently stop the influx of foreign terrorist fighters” and cut supply routes.

The operation would continue “until we are convinced that imminent threats … have been neutralized,” the official said.

A quagmire for Turkey?

But as the Turkish advance began, a leader of Syria’s largest Kurdish group said Turkey would regret its intervention. “Turkey is in Syrian quagmire. Will be defeated as Daesh [IS],” tweeted Saleh Moslem, co-president of the Democratic Union Party, whose armed wing is the YPG.

Mr. Biden struck careful notes, reassuring the NATO ally of  “continued unwavering support” for Turkey, which has seen a surge in anti-American sentiment after a failed military coup attempt on July 15 blamed on a cleric living in exile in Pennsylvania.

Biden also told Turkey that the US would ensure its Kurdish allies in Syria withdrew.

“We have made it absolutely clear ... that they must move back across the river,” Biden told journalists during a press conference with Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim. “They cannot, will not, and under no circumstances get American support if they do not keep that commitment. Period.”

Mr. Yildirim said that the YPG worked with the separatist PKK, and were “terrorists” like Islamic State.

“The US should know.… Maybe you can beat the other one with a terrorist group, but at the end it will be a question how to deal with this terrorist organization,” said Yildirim. “So for that reason they should review their stance” to the YPG.

Volatile mix of battle zones

Turkey is no stranger to cross-border operations, and made many into Iraq in the 1990s and later, in pursuit PKK fighters. The swift advance of IS in Syria and Iraq since 2014 has brought a variety of Kurdish forces in Syria, Turkey, and Iraq into the volatile mix of battle zones, prompting political talk about greater Kurdish unity.

A Turkish cross-border operation has long been expected but apparently derailed at least twice: by Turkey shooting down a Russian jet that crossed into its airspace in November 2015, and also by the failed military coup of July 15, which has resulted in a deep purge of senior officers.

“We have to solve this problem now,” Erdoğan said. “Some people are challenging us, saying the situation will end badly for Turkey. [But] you should calculate what will happen to you. No matter who becomes a threat for Turkey, this nation will stand against them with its Army, police, village guards.”

It is significant that Russia appeared to lend tacit support to the Turkish advance, by not challenging it with its own aircraft, says Çağaptay.

“This has shown that the Syrian war is evolving into a conflict in which many simultaneous wars are being fought at the same time, where actors who are at odds in one theater can be co-belligerents in another theater,” he says.

Aleppo, a northern city heavily contested between government and opposition forces, is one example where Turkey and Russia support opposing sides. Yet “in Jarablus, Russia and Turkey are – at least in tacit terms – allies,” says Çağaptay.

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